Among the best developments in Yankeeland last season was Jordan Montgomery showing he’s a viable big league starting pitcher. He went to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee and beat out 40-man roster players like Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell for the fifth starter’s job. Montgomery threw 155.1 innings with a 3.88 ERA (4.07 FIP) last year and was the best rookie pitcher in baseball by fWAR.
This season the hope was Montgomery would plow forward with his development while providing quality innings every fifth day. Does he have the tools to be an ace? No, not really. But pitchers don’t have to have ace potential to be useful, especially when they’re young and cheap. For years the Yanks had no success developing cheap back of the rotation starters. Now they had one in Montgomery and it was exciting.
Rather than move forward with his development, Montgomery was hit by the injury bug this summer, and eventually needed Tommy John surgery. He made six starts and threw 27.1 innings with a 3.62 ERA (4.22 FIP) before his elbow gave out. Montgomery’s season ended on May 1st. Baseball can be a real jerk sometimes. Let’s dig into Montgomery’s unfortunately abbreviated sophomore season.
Five Solid Starts
Montgomery made six starts in 2018 but it was really only five starts. He exited his sixth start after one inning with his elbow injury. It was a seven-pitch 1-2-3 first inning against George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa. That was it. Walking off the field after that first inning in Houston was the last time we saw Montgomery on the field this season.
Coming into the season, Montgomery did not have to compete for a rotation spot. The Yankees and Aaron Boone were very open about having their five starters picked out (Montgomery, Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka) going into Spring Training. There was no rigged fifth starter’s competition or anything. The job was Montgomery’s. As it should’ve been.
“I viewed it as he was a front-runner for that spot,” said Boone in March. “We are really excited, not only about the year he put together last year but where we think he will continue to go. When I look at him I look at him as one of our starters.”
The schedule did not allow the Yankees to skip their fifth starter early in the season, so Montgomery started the fifth game of the year, and it happened to be the home opener. The home opener was of course snowed out, originally. Rather than use the snowout to skip Montgomery, the Yankees stayed on turn, and the next day Montgomery allowed one run in five innings against the Rays in the first game at Yankee Stadium in 2018.
In his five real starts before the injury, Montgomery only had one clunker, when he allowed four runs on eleven hits and a walk in 4.1 innings against the Orioles in his second start. Ouch. A quality start against the Tigers followed, then, in his fourth start, Montgomery had his best outing of his abbreviated year, throwing six innings of one run ball against the Blue Jays on April 21st.
The Yankees had their starters on a very short leash early in the season as they controlled workloads, and Montgomery’s pitch count in his five starts was built up gradually: 80, 86, 91, 91, 98. That was not a Montgomery thing. It was an everyone thing. The Yankees did not let a starter throw 100 pitches until April 22nd, in the 20th game of the season. They did all they can to protect their arms. Teams do all they can to keep guys healthy and sometimes they still get hurt. That’s baseball.
Montgomery finished with a 3.62 ERA (4.22 FIP) in 27.1 innings with a strikeout rate that was down from last year (22.2% vs. 19.8%) and a walk rate that up from last year (7.9% to 10.3%). It’s difficult to know how much of that is sample size noise and how much of that can be attributed to the injury. Elbow woes do tend to lead to control problems, which could explain the increase in walk rate. That said, the plate discipline numbers real quick:
2017 Zone Rate: 42.8%
2018 Zone Rate: 43.1%
2018 Chase Rate: 35.2%
2018 Chase Rate: 34.1%
Montgomery’s zone and chase rates this year were essentially the same as last year. Within the bounds of normal fluctuation, especially given how few innings Montgomery threw this year. His average fastball velocity was down from last April (92.1 mph vs. 90.9 mph) which was a red flag, though it was very cold this April and Montgomery was coming off the biggest workload of his career. Losing a mile-an-hour was a red flag but alarm bells had not sounded.
Sometimes injuries just happen. Sometimes the biggest and strongest dudes with clean health records get hurt. The Yankees really eased up on Montgomery in the second half last season (remember Jaime Garcia getting all those starts?) and his workload increase wasn’t that extreme. Montgomery threw 163.1 innings last year. His previous career high was 152 innings in 2016. Minor league innings are not big league innings, but that’s not an insane jump. Anyway, here’s the timeline of Montgomery’s injury:
- May 1st: Exited his start with what was initially called elbow tightness.
- May 2nd: Initial diagnosis is a flexor strain with a 6-8 week recovery timetable.
- May 26th: Montgomery starts playing catch.
- June 5th: Yankees announce Montgomery needs Tommy John surgery.
I wouldn’t call going from a flexor strain to Tommy John surgery common but it does happen. It happened to Joba Chamberlain back in the day. It happened with Jason Vargas a few years ago. Johnny Cueto had a flexor strain late last year, dealt with more elbow problems this year, and then had Tommy John surgery after trying to pitch through it. I don’t think Montgomery or the Yankees did anything wrong here. Pitchers break. It’s what they do.
Another Year, Another Tommy John Surgery
For the Yankees, that is. Not Montgomery. This is his first real arm injury. He never missed a start in college or pro ball before his elbow gave out this year. The Yankees, on the other hand, have now had a starting pitcher undergo Tommy John surgery in each of the last five seasons. The list:
- 2018: Jordan Montgomery (June)
- 2017: Michael Pineda (July)
- 2016: Nathan Eovaldi (August)
- 2015: Chase Whitley (May)
- 2014: Ivan Nova (April)
Okay, we’re pushing it with Whitley since he wasn’t in the Opening Day rotation, but he did make four starts before needing Tommy John surgery in 2015. Five years, five starters going down with Tommy John surgery. Approximately 26% of big league pitchers have had elbow reconstruction at some point. Losing a starter a year to Tommy John surgery is kinda par for the course. That doesn’t make it easier to swallow when it happens.
More rehab. There haven’t been any updates on Montgomery’s progress since his surgery, which isn’t terribly uncommon for a non-star player in the early months of Tommy John surgery rehab. Not a whole lot happens in the first few months after elbow reconstruction. Montgomery had his surgery on June 7th and he should start throwing soon if he hasn’t already. It’s a long throwing program. Usually four or five months on flat ground before getting back up on a mound.
“I just show up every day and do what they tell me what to do. I have the same shoulder workouts every day. I run a mile. I put my arm in heat, then an arm bike and then do shoulder workouts,” said Montgomery to Randy Miller in late-August. “I’m probably getting close to being able to play catch, another month or so. That usually happens after four or five months. I’ll do it at home (in South Carolina). They have me set up with a therapist in Charleston.”
I’m not going lie, I am a bit worried about Montgomery post-surgery. He is the kind good-not-great stuff guy who has the most to lose after Tommy John surgery. A little velocity loss or reduced bite on the breaking ball could push Montgomery from rotation option to fringe big leaguer. Montgomery’s good! But his margin of error was never big to begin with, and if he loses a little something due to surgery, it’ll change his long-term outlook. It is what it is. Sucks.
For now, Montgomery is continuing to rehab and he’s not expected back until the middle of next season. These days the typical Tommy John surgery rehab timetable is 14-16 months rather than 12-14 months. Teams have slowed the process down after there was a sudden rash of pitchers needing a second Tommy John surgery a few years ago. Montgomery is expected back at some point next year but the Yankees can’t pencil him in for anything, obviously. He might not be back to his pre-surgery self until 2020. Whatever he gives them next year is a bonus.
“I’ll be throwing bullpens in Spring Training probably and I’ll probably be back pitching in games before the All-Star break,” Montgomery added while talking to Miller. “I’ll be back next year. I’ll be the knight in shining armor in the second half.”